It was Norfolk's version of Wrestlemania before Wrestlemania was a thing. A little more than 40 years ago — Jan. 11, 1979 — 2,300 fans packed the Norfolk High School gymnasium for a showdown between Columbus and Norfolk.
Columbus was in the middle of a decade of high school wrestling dominance, not seen in Class A before or since. During the 11 seasons between 1974 and '84, the Discoverers won seven state titles, finished second twice, third twice and had 17 individuals crowned state champion.
"Just going up against Columbus, you knew you were going up against the best," Norfolk's Steve Welch said. “All of their guys were powerhouse wrestlers, every one of them. There wasn't a weak link, ever. You just knew you had to wrestle your best that night to win."
While it's not uncommon for basketball games to attract standing-room-only crowds, the throng that filled the senior high gym to capacity for 12 wrestling matches was perhaps unprecedented. It may have been the largest crowd to ever see a wrestling dual in a high school gym in the state's history.
"We were ranked No. 2, and Columbus was ranked No. 1 at the time," former Norfolk coach Dave Boyd said. "It was a kind of a history-making night for high school wrestling. Both of us had won every tournament and dual that we had been in up to that point. The kids were looking forward to it from the very first day of practice."
"You felt like it was Nebraska vs. Oklahoma, 1 and 2 in ’71," Welch said.
And, like the game of the century, it lived up to its billing.
"It went down to the final match. It was really an amazing night, something I'll always be proud to be a part of," he said.
Another Norfolk grappler, Jeff Mitchell, said it was a good thing everyone was watching his weight. "If we'd have eaten, we would've thrown up, we were so nervous," he laughed. "I remember all of the TV cameras and reporters. I wish every athlete got to experience what we did."
Norfolk's Kurt Wittler said he could tell it was going to be a different kind of a night as soon as he arrived at the school. "As we would typically come in for a weigh-in, there would be nobody there," he said. "But that night, there were already people taking their seats."
Norfolk Senior High officials set up extra seating around the gym but could accommodate only 2,300. Several hundred more fans arrived too late. Fire officials ordered the doors locked about an hour before varsity matches were scheduled to begin.
Out in the already-packed gym, fans loudly cheered on the junior varsity wrestlers, but the Norfolk locker room was dead silent. "Nobody was saying a word," Rick Graae said. "Everybody was in their own zone because we all knew this was going to be something special."
There were 12 weight divisions in 1979 — as compared with 14 today — and of the 24 athletes who made up the Columbus and Norfolk varsity lineups, 13 — eight Discoverers and five Panthers — were ranked among the state's top six.
Welch was one of Norfolk's rated wrestlers. He entered the match ranked No. 3 at 132 pounds. "I remember being in the locker room and when we started to come out, up the steps, our band played the “Rocky” theme song and the crowd roared. It was an unbelievable, amazing, magical night."
"Our stomachs went up to our throats, I think," Norfolk's Greg Staudenmaier said. "It was a sight to behold."
When the Panthers arrived at the mat, the Discoverers were already there, doing calisthenics while sporting their iconic maroon boxing robes they continue to wear to this day.
"They tried to intimidate you with those," Boyd said with a chuckle.
Both teams used half of the mat to warm up. "Most of those guys, we'd met before in AAU wrestling and all that stuff we did outside of school," Mitchell said. "We all knew each other pretty well. In fact, we were pretty good friends with a lot of those guys, but it was pretty intense."
As the teams warmed up, supporters for both sides cheered on their mat warriors. The band belted out the top pop tunes of the day. The Norfolk basketball and football cheerleaders joined their wrestling counterparts to make for a gigantic Panther pep squad.
Meanwhile, male members of the student body, most of them with their hair blow-dried, feathered back and parted down the middle, took up most of the northeast bleachers, stood the whole time and were as fired up as their classmates on the mat.
"It was like being in the Nebraska stadium during a football game," Graae said. "You really couldn't hear yourself think. It was that loud."
With the warmups complete, the combatants lined up on either side of the mat. As each wrestler was introduced, he stared down his opponent as both walked to the center. "You shake hands and you kind of give each other a chest bump and say, 'See you out there,' " Mitchell said.
The dual started with the 98-pounders. Norfolk's Randy Sterba and Columbus' Jim Herout battled to a 2-2 draw. There were no tiebreakers in duals at the time and both sides were awarded two team points.
Sixth-ranked Jeff Brudigan gave Norfolk the lead at 105 with a 15-5 major decision over Rick Jeffries. Then Mitchell stepped on the mat for his showdown with Columbus' fifth-ranked Brian Thalken at 112.
The two battled for the full six minutes before the match ended in a 4-4 draw. "My takedown and points came in the first 30 seconds of the match," Mitchell said. "I thought I had the kid pinned and I guess I didn't and it ended up in a draw because I ran out of juice."
Norfolk then got a big win at 119 when unranked Dave Peterson defeated fourth-ranked Lonny Wehrer 5-2.
"I took him down right away and rode him out through the first period," Peterson said. "Then in the third period, I got an escape, but it was work to get the escape and then I got another takedown."
Columbus coach Lanny Neese was worried. "I knew we were in trouble when they got a draw at 112 and a win at 119," Neese was quoted as saying in the story published the next day in the Daily News.
Norfolk led 11-4 before Columbus picked up its first win of the night at 126. No. 2 Tom Sackett blanked Steve Warneke 6-0.
Then the 132-pounders stepped on the mat. No. 3 Welch and No. 6 Bryan Rhea shook hands. The referee blew his whistle. "My nerves were off the charts," Welch said. "You felt like the whole town was there to see you go up against somebody and you're in the spotlight. And I was like, 'I cannot lose to this guy in front of this crowd!' "
"I wrestled out of my mind. I hit a Granby roll. That's a hard move to do. It's a spin move, and I hit it to perfection," Welch said. "No one was going to beat me that night, it didn't matter who I was going up against." Welch won 9-4 and Norfolk led 14-7.
Then it was time for the main event at 138. Norfolk's top-ranked Todd Kohl, the defending 132-pound state champion, vs. No. 2 Doug Rice of Columbus. Both were undefeated.
We’ll conclude our look at this epic wrestling dual in Wednesday’s Daily News.